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Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack

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He was informed that the half-acre of land must be transferred to the Museum Society, which had been formed in March 1978 and so he sold the land for the required nominal sum of one dollar. Officiated by Premier Bill Bennett, the Museum finally had an opening ceremony in July 1982. On its opening day Clare pointed out the purpose of the Museum, which was to provide a heritage repository for artifacts of Westbank’s early days; a facility for special interest groups, such as arts and crafts persons; a community cultural center for the display of trade and art shows; for local collections of school history projects, and to generate community programs of historical and cultural worth.

In August of 2017 La Tanya Autry and Mike Murawski started the movement Museums Are Not Neutral to challenge the way history is told in museums today. The movement works to dismantle systems of oppression, racism, injustice, and colonialism by rejecting the status quo and centering marginalized histories, stories, voices, and perspectives. You see, for hundreds of years and in fact still today, museums tend to focus on the dominant narratives in society. They tend to tell stories of white struggle and prosperity, of pulling oneself up by one's bootstraps.

An Article from the Westside Weekly Newsletter in August of 2013 has the headline "Pioneers tell Westbank history best" and goes on to talk about the five most prominent White Settler families in Westbank. It tells the story of the kinds of people who wrote the so-called "real history of Westbank". This is not to say that these families did not work hard establishing orchards, or streamlining packinghouses and lumber mills, but it does ignore the stories of the individuals who lived on the land before 1811, and who had their own stories of innovation, contention, and success. The very idea that pioneers tell history best, excludes the stories of countless other people, such as the Syilx/Okanagan peoples and the Japanese and Chinese immigrants who lived here just as long or longer.

So let's take a minute and reflect on the two statements listed above: museums are not boring and museums are not neutral. Museums are not boring because there is a rich history and life to be shared in the way stories are told. Stories teach us about what it means to overcome pain and hardship. It helps us to reflect on the past in order to better move forward. Museums are places of learning and growth and without history, we lose valuable lessons that our ancestors have to teach us. The idea that museums are not neutral is important because when we assume that the stories we tell are the only stories to be told, we silence the voices of people who matter. Historically, the victors are the ones who tell the stories. They are the ones who tell the stories in the way they want them to be told. It is for this reason that museums are not neutral. You cannot tell a story in which you have no stakes in the matter. Put another way, you cannot tell a story without implicit bias.

So what does this mean for Westbank and the museum itself? How can we share history in a way that accurately reflects the lives of all of the people living in Westbank? Moreover, what is a museum's role if it cannot be neutral? Let's take a look at another story. It's the one about the founding of Powers Flat. It starts with a man by the name of William Powers who arrived in Vernon at the age of 19 in 1885. He settled in what is now known as Westbank to farm Powers Flat. Win Shilvock, along with a variety of other writers on the topic, states that "the Indians, who probably rightly claimed the land as theirs, so harassed them that in 1890 the preemptions were abandoned." There's a lot to unpack here, but perhaps the most important is to state the obvious. Here, both parties are included in the story. The settlers wanted to farm Powers Flat and the "Indians", or First Nations peoples, did not want them to.

These are facts, but the way in which the story is told tells a very different tale. "The Indians" is an outdated terminology that was used to refer to the First Peoples of North America, because explorers thought they had arrived in India. It is written into our policies and in our newspapers and is commonly used until...well... it hasn't completely gone away. If you come across this word, please don't use it. Instead, I recommend asking how someone would like to be preferred. Are they Cree, Syilx, or Musqueam? What is the specific group of people you are referring to? If you don't know and you cannot ask, then, the term Indigenous is broadly accepted to refer to the First Nations, Metis, and Inuit Peoples of Canada.

Alright, now back to the story. The sentence goes on to state that "the Indians, who probably rightly claimed the land"...let's stop there. The Syilx/Okanagan peoples did not probably have claim to the land. They did have claim to the land, for land is not something bought and sold. It is something to be respected, cared for, and treated with dignity. It is a living entity, in which we inhabit, learn from, and utilize. Not to mention, before the founding and development of Powers Flats, there were already people using the land.

Finally, I want to pay attention to the word "harassed", for if we were to say that this was what really happened, we need to ask ourselves why? What caused the Indigenous people in the area to harass the settlers if they in fact did so? One simple fact is that it was not the land of William Powers or David Erskine Gellatly's, who later settled there. The land, if land can belong to anyone, belonged to the First Nations who resided there. There does not need to be any further discussion.

So, when telling the history, and more specifically, the history of Westbank, it is not enough to represent two people groups, but you need to share both perspectives. For example, the founding of Powers Flat from the settler perspective does not tell the full story. Its founding is problematic. It comes with the mistreatment of the land and the people who lived there. There are two necessary perspectives and to put them side by side without any further context as to why one may be inaccurate is a disservice to history and storytelling. For a museum is not neutral, and rather it cannot be, without reinforcing the dominant narrative that excludes and oppresses individuals on the margins of society. Further, a museum is not boring because it has the potential to educate, agitate, and push us further than the ones who came before us. So, when we rethink the way history is told, we open up discussions for change and a rebalancing of power, which I believe is essential moving forward.

Works Cited:

Autry, La Tanya & Mike Murawski. "Museum's Are Not Neutral."
Brotherton, Dorothy. "Pioneers tell Westbank history best." Westside Weekly, 15 August 2013, pp. 13.
Shilvock, Win. "The men behind the names." Gellatly, Dorothy. "The Gellatly Pioneers." pp. 85-87